What the Hell Is Going On With Russia and Gays?: An Explainer

The following video, widely circulated on social media, shows a Russian teen being tortured by a Neo-Nazi gang that suspects him of being gay. It seems likely that the clip—like the photo above, taken at a St. Petersburg gay-rights rally in June—will become iconic for the same reasons the famous photographs of Emmett Till's corpse did when they were published in Jet in 1955: It's excruciating to endure and potentially galvanizing because of it. Says Spectrum Human Rights Alliance:

These self-proclaimed "crime fighters" perform their actions under the broad day light, often outside and clearly visible to general public that indifferently passes by or even commend them. Video recordings of bullying and tortures are freely distributed on the Internet in order to out LGBT teens to their respective schools, parents and friends. Many victims were driven to suicides, the rest are deeply traumatized. So far Russian police took no action against these "movements" even though Russian criminal code was clearly violated and despite numerous complaints from parents, victims and LGBT activists.

The video is symptomatic of the hostile anti-gay climate sweeping Russia, thanks in part to a series of laws limiting gay rights that have been enthusiastically passed by the Russian parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin. Actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein's op-ed column in last Sunday's New York Times was a terrific primer on Russia's mounting and pervasive homophobia. More is below.

Just how hostile is the climate in Russia?

It's awful.

Consensual homosexual sex was decriminalized in 1993, but that has come to mean less and less in recent years. Ten gay activists brave enough to show up at a January demonstration in Voronezh were beaten by a mob. The body of a gay Russian man was found in Volgograd on May 10. He'd been sodomized with beer bottles and set on fire after coming out to acquaintances. Another was found stabbed and trampled to death in June.

President Vladimir Putin claims to care about "the rights of sexual minorities," but speaks darkly about gay marriage with respect to what he calls Russia's "demographic crisis." He's strongly influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church, whose Patriarch Kirill claims that recognizing same-sex unions is an "apocalyptic symptom."

A Levada Center poll of Russians revealed earlier this year that 89 percent of responders said they had no homosexual friends or relatives. Half said gays and lesbians made them feel "irritated and disgusted."

And how about from a legislative standpoint?

Putin recently signed a one-two punch of laws limiting the rights of homosexuals. They are:

  1. A bill signed July 3 bans adoption for same-sex couples from countries where gay marriage is legalized. (It also bans adoption for single people and unmarried couples from said countries.) It's a fuck-you to marriage equality and a bigger fuck-you to parentless kids. The Kremlin claims the move is intended to protect children from "complexes, emotional suffering and stress" that gay parenting inflicts, even though studies routinely suggest quite the contrary.
  2. A bill signed on June 30 banning the "promotion" of "non-traditional sexual relations" toward children (also known as Russia's anti-"gay propaganda" law). "Promotion" includes public displays of affection. Putin claims that the "Don't Say Gay"-style law is not discrimination, but "about protecting children from such information." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it this way: "We’re not discriminating against anyone, we just don’t want reverse discrimination, when one group of citizens gets the right to aggressively impose their values, unsupported by most of the population, especially on children." Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament, passed it almost unanimously, despite the European Union's condemnation and fears of "[increased] discrimination and violence against LGBTI individuals."

Practically speaking, the propaganda law means any Russian news outlet publishing an article or report that features a gay person must include a disclaimer, like this one RIA Novosti is running:

This article contains information not suitable for readers younger than 18 years of age, according to Russian legislation.

The law includes a provision that allows police to arrest and detain for up to 14 days gay or "pro-gay" foreigners. On Sunday, four Dutch activists were arrested at a human-rights seminar in Murmansk. One reportedly gave a lecture on gay rights, and the four of them planned to film a documentary about homosexuality in Russia. The filming reportedly included an interview with a 17-year-old, which is said to have precipitated the arrest. They were released from custody on Monday and reportedly fined 3,000 rubles ($92.80).

Arresting and detaining foreigners? Isn't that going to make things dangerous for those attending the 2014 Winter Olympics are held in Sochi in February?

The International Olympic Committee says no:

"The IOC has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games," according to the statement emailed to USA TODAY Sports.

So trust them, what's the worst that could happen? Oh right, you could spend two weeks in jail when this assurance is conveniently forgotten.

Are you sure that Johnny Weir is going to be OK? He's really flamboyant.

He's determined despite the political climate. He recently wrote:

The fact that Russia is arresting my people, and openly hating a minority and violating Human Rights all over the place is heartbreaking and a travesty of international proportions, but I still will compete. There isn’t a police officer or a government that, should I qualify, could keep me from competing at the Olympics.

He also has dismissed calls to boycott the Games:

To have a boycott would not only negate the career of some athletes who have only one chance at competing at the Games, but also the over-time shifts an exhausted father takes to make ends meet, or the social acclimatization of a brother who can’t go on spring break because his brother needed another costume, or the mother who works part-time at a job far beneath her, just so she can afford to watch her first born perform for the world. The Olympics are not a political statement, they are a place to let the world shine in peace and let them marvel at their youthful talents.

OK, so I won't boycott the Olympics, but I want to boycott something. Help.

Earlier this week, Dan Savage announced he was boycotting Russian vodka in a #DUMPRUSSIANVODKA/#DUMPSTOLI campaign that comes with a 2-sided PDF flyer and everything. In an open letter, Stoli said that it opposes Russia's recent anti-gay measures and affirmed its status as an ally to the gay community ("We also thank the community for having adopted Stoli as their vodka of preference," it reads, but that sounds presumptuous to me—I wanna see the receipts). Savage shot down Stoli's but-I-have-gay-friends laundry list. His response read in part:

While it's nice that SPI is willing to market to homos who are lucky enough to live in Austria, the US, and South Africa, what has SPI done in Russia? The group has sponsored gay pride events in Vienna and Miami. That's nice. But have they sponsored gay pride events in Moscow or St. Petersburg? Val says that Stoli is upset and angry. That's nice. So has Stoli said anything to the Russian authorities? Has [Stoli owner] Yuri Scheffler expressed his anger in an open letter to Vladimir Putin?

Russian LGBT activist Nikolai Alekseev said that he doesn't see the point of the protest, adding, "The producers, even if they become bankrupt because of the boycott (which is unlikely) will not be able to influence Russian politics and President Putin as well as the decisions of the State Duma."

Savage mentioned pride events. How's all that been going in Russia?

Terribly! A rally on June 29 resulted in dozens of arrests of gay-rights activists and anti-gay nationalists alike. About 40 of the former showed up, and 200 of the latter. The bigger group threw eggs and rocks at the activists.

Also, gay pride parades are banned in Moscow for the next 99 years.

So what can Russians do?

A #VIRTUALPRIDE was hatched in response to the various bans on demonstration. Here's how NPR described that:

As the New York marchers start making their way down Fifth Avenue at noon Sunday, their counterparts in Moscow will take virtual steps toward Red Square along a route marked with supportive tweets tagged #virtualpride.

That's… something. Admittedly, it's hard to do much when even expressing your opinion is considered propaganda and grounds for your arrest.

What can we do?

Alekseev is encouraging those with an unthreatened voice to contact their governments to make life more difficult for the Russian lawmakers responsible for the anti-gay restrictions. He says:

Just three or four persons on the visa ban list of the EU, USA, UK and several other countries will dissuade other Russian politicians to follow this path. This is the only thing which can effectively work. Pressure your governments to put the authors of those laws on the black lists for the entrance visas. They will suffer and others will think twice. Nothing else will work!

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter regarding his op-ed, here's what Fierstein suggests:

The biggest thing you can do is make sure you put no money toward Russia at all. Check and see what Russian products are and refuse to [buy them]. Write up on your social media — copy the story about the young man that was killed, copy the story about the [four Dutch tourists] arrested, copy the stories about the adoptions and these poor people whose hearts have been ripped open by the stupid laws that [Putin is] passing. Copy anything and just make sure that people know. Then write to your representative and say, "I don't want you whitewashing this shit. I want a condemnation of Russia. I don't want any of my tax money going to Russia." You've got to write to the Olympic Committee and say, "I think we should boycott." People in our industry should write to our unions. We have a TV union, there are lots and lots of unions that will be involved in the Olympics and our unions should refuse to let our union members go. That's the only way to stop this, is to starve the rat. I'm telling you.

B-b-b-but Putin is not the gay boogeyman!

Yeah, that's what he said.

Update: We have replaced the original video with one of the victim's face blurred. WITNESS Blog makes a convincing case for doing so:

...By circulating the video without protecting the anonymity of the victim, these distributors have become unwitting accomplices in the harassment. They are carrying out the crime that the abusers unleashed, outing a 15-year-old to more than a half-million viewers around the world. What will this mean for the boy, whose face is not only recognizable throughout Russia, but throughout the world?